We got a little more than we bargained for when we set out to climb Argonaut Peak via the NE Couloir this weekend. The plan was to hike in and camp below the couloir, climb the next day with a carry over to Colchuck Lake and hike out. This is I guess what happened, but it unfolded rather differently from what we had in mind.

The road to Stuart Lake TH (Eightmile rd) is still not opened. So we began early on Saturday to get past the 4 mile road walk by mid morning and get on the real trail. Stuart Lake Trail is pretty beat down from all the traffic and there were a fair amount of folks on the trail with us. We unfortunately were passed by couple with two dogs. There are signs all over the TH stating that no dogs are allowed which kind of irked us. Damien mentioned it to them, but the gentleman arrogantly retorted “Not when the road is closed.” Sometimes even in the wilderness you can’t escape jerks.

At the Junction with Colchuck Lake TH we put on our snowshoes. The Stuart Lake Trail was not very well beat down from here as everyone funnels to Colchuck. We were happy to remove weight from our packs. Both of us were carrying a twin rope for the long rappels. We hiked for about 1 mile to the clearing where Argonaut becomes visible looming over the valley. From here we hiked .2 more miles before cutting left off the trial and into the trees.

Bushwhacking off trail became very tedious business. The snow was melting leaving lows of hallow areas and unstable snow bridges everywhere. It was like walking through a giant booby trap. This ate away a far amount of time. Furthermore we had to cross Mountaineer Creek 3x. The beta often makes it sound like there are plenty of stable logs to cross. However, with the creek running fast and 6ft deep in places and the logs not as grand as expected this also became time consumer. The first crossing was over a thicker log which, though scary, was stable. We had to search around when crossing the area where the creek folks and found only borderline acceptable crossing. In fact, after Damien leaped across some rocks that were too spread out for my much shorter legs he built me a bridge of logs! He said this was my early birthday gift.

After the final crossing we were able to vaguely see the open slopes of Argonaut through the trees. We trudged on. My back had been killing me ever since our Liberty Bell Group Ski Tour when I had to cart my skis on back down the road making for a total load of about half my weight (60lbs). I was really really looking forward to taking off my pack. The tree began to break and Argonaut loomed high above us. We opted to climb up some of the lower slopes and look for a place to camp. Luckily Damien came across a nice flat area in the snow beside a big flat rock perfect for cooking. This made a lovely home for the evening as we admired 360 degree views of the surrounding Mountains including Stuart, Sherpa and Colchuck as we enjoyed a fine meal by Mountain House. We turned in before dark prepared to wake up early the next morning to begin the trek up.

At 4am when the alarm rang we could hear a gentle pitter patter on the tent fly. Rain. The forecast had said there was a slight chance of snow/rain overnight that wouldn’t amount to much. Still we didn’t want to pack water soaked gear and lug it over the mountain in the carry over. We decided to wait to out and began getting ready to leave at 5am.

As light spilled over the snow covers sloped of Argonaut and illuminated the surrounding craggy peaks we slowly snowshoed up the steep slope toward the NE Couloir which is the left obvious couloir. We roped up on a narrow rocky ridge above a huge avalanche debris field.

Damien lead easily to the base of the couloir. We used the full length of twin ropes due to the double rope rappel needed on the way down. The couloir started out wide. we used the axes dagger and deadman style and the climbing went quickly. Damien place don picket. Further up the walls grew closer funneling us into the narrow couloir. Damien placed some mid- sized nuts, cams, a piton and a tricam in this seemingly endless and steep area. Snow condition were continuously changing and inconsistent. There was snow so hard we had to swing at it like ice and about an ice away might be snow was with softer like Styrofoam. Basically we used a mixed bag of swings, dagger and deadman tool placements. Note that as the couloir got narrow debris from the upper climber falls at whistling speeds down these runnel areas. staying on the side near the rock and out of these trenches provided good protection, but sometimes crossing was required so I ran across. About 3/4 of the way up Damien ran out of pro and built a gear anchor. We swapped leads and I began the final pitch.

The couloir got wider, but the gear grew scarce. I didn’t see any good rock placements on the sides. I placed the first picket and looked above me. I had one more picket left. I decided I would climb the next steep section which seemed to be about in 30-40ft. After that the angle eased up… or so I thought. The closer I got the more I realized that the easing angle was some kind of illusion from below. And the top of the couloir seemed to be somehow the same amount of distance away. Oh endless slopes. I placed the final picket and resigned myself to not falling.

About 4 yards from the top i spotted from slings on my left. I almost used them for my belay anchor, but after an inspection I’m not convinced I didn’t trust the rock or the old slings. I put in a came and moved to a flat rock square beside some crack on the right wall. I was able to build an anchor here and belay Damien up.

Damien passed me, crested the small col and disappeared on the other side. He called that there was a ridge and he had found a tree. He belayed me over the other side where i scrambled over rocky exposed terrain. The final 250ft of Argonaut reared up on on left looking ominous in the sudden darkening sky. When I left my belay stance the sky was blue, but now grey clouds were furiously rolling in and the winds were picking up. We decided that going for the summit would not be wise in the deteriorating weather and the time 3:30pm. Carrying the extra carry overweight had really slowed our normal progress speed. Instead, Damien belayed me down to a thick tree with wrap slings so I could peak over the edge at the rappel. Going back the way we had come was also an option but not recommended since it is very sketchy. Instead it is better to do a rappel down sheer rock wall ridge. Damien wanted me to see if our two 60Meter ropes would reach the snow. I wasn’t convinced they would. Of course as I said this snow began to fall from the sky and swirl around us in the fierce wind. Hypothermia set in for both of us almost immediately and we delayed all decision making until we had more layers put on.

I belayed Damien to the tree and after some discussion we decided that we should execute the scary rappel. If the ropes didn’t reach the snow we hoped to find some kind of left behind mid-way anchor or, worse case scenario, build our own gear anchor. The slings on the stout tree looked pretty good, but we decided to leave behind our own cordaette and rap rings. Damien went down first. It took forever. I shivered again the wind and snow feeling very very much like an alpine climber. I was also gazing toward Colchuck Col. We would have to traverse under a rock buttress and then back up to the col once we finished the rappel. It all seemed very very far away. Damien had estimated we’d be home by 1am. I wasn’t convinced, especially when i watched the col disappearing in a momentary whiteout.

Finally the rope went slack and Damien called up that he was off rappel. The echo bounced all over the rock walls around me. I clipped in, triple checked the system and undid my PA. This was the rappel of rappels. I hadn’t used my training for rappeling off of roofs since my first climbing class 4 years ago, but here they were. Roof after roof. I tried to lower my butt first as far as possible, but my heavy pack made me off balance so it wasn’t a very graceful descent.

Damien was standing on a tiny ledge in a small open book crack system. He was clipped into four nuts, someone previous anchor exactly where we needed it. Luck. We prayed that the ropes would pull clean and by some miricle they didn’t get held up in the many cracks above. However, we wouldn’t get of this mountain without some trouble. Our twin ropes seem to have a habit of tangling into complicated bird’s nests.  It didn’t matter how careful were were; they kept getting into a knotted mess as were coiled. This was a huge time eater. Finally we were able to toss the ropes. Damien’s threw clean and mine got help up were the rock met snow. I rapped first since i was on a lower ledge than Damien. This rappel was somewhat easier since it didn’t involve roofs. I did have to navigate over some moats as the snow creeped up on the rock. More of the rap was through the snow though and I took it until the rope’s end.

With Damien on the ground beside me we began the long traverse to Colchuck Col. We had to go down and around this small buttress and then back up again to get to the col. I was doing well until I had to start going up again. I had 300 calories in bars left so I wasn’t eating much. The storm had blown by but the cold remained. My back ached with the weight of the pack and my whole body suddenly felt drained. Still we plodded on in snowshoes to the top of the col. Only it wasn’t the top of the col. It was just a hump. The real col laid beyond at what seemed, at that point, to me like an impossible distance. Wearing every article of clothing I had as my body lost it’s ability to maintain temperatures we continued our march to the col.

We sat down and removed our snowshoes on the rocks of the col. It was 8:00 and the sun was beginning to set. The snow was growing hard in the evening cold. Originally we had planned to glissade down to Colchuck Lake 2000 feet below, but in icy conditions this would not be safe. We decided to try and plunge step and french step our way down to the tiny distant lake. So so far away.

Damien tried to glissade at one point, but the icy shrapnel  flying in his face made him abandon that idea quickly. I switched back down, but found my leg growing weak. I found an old glissade track and tried it. Not too bad so long as I buried my axe deep for control. The snow was softer here too for some reason, though not exactly fluffy. More like soft ice. But I didn’t trust my feet anymore. I found that if i dug hard enough into the snow with my axe I could glissade slowly enough to feel safe. It was tedious going and completely darkness fell just as we reached the bottom.

We now faced a decision. Try to hike out exhausted, unfed, dehydrated and with muscle fatigue or sleep for a few hours to at least have some of the exhaustion relieved. Also, since i feel a few times coming down the slope when i was trying to walk down (yay for successful self arresting) it seems like the more logical decision as my legs weren’t happy with me. I think it was the almost zero calorie input and high energy output that really did me in the most.

We set up and camp and melted some snow on the side of the lake before Colchuck Col. Before settling in for a deep and hard sleep we agreed to walk up at 2:00am to complete the journey out. Of course those 4 hours felt more like 5 minutes. Our bodies were stiff as we crawled out of our sleeping bags and tried to rub the sleep out of our eyes. I had slept with my rain-gear on since my body was having issues maintaining temperature. But will all the goretex i stayed warm enough.

We packed up and follow the stamped out trail by the light of our headlamps. The walk around the lake to the trail down was a bit of a maze, but by choosing the track that was the most stomped down we were able to slowly move around the lake and get to the descent. We had assumed that the trail down would be easy and well stomped out. This was true.. except there were several trails to choose from. With many folks in the road so to speak we kept looking at the gps and trying to choose the right one. Sometimes the track we followed wasn’t on the summer trail though which made it difficult. It was at one of these off the summer track junction that we turned left in the direction the main trail was. It ended up being a trail that descended steep embankments and harsh terrain. Not something we wanted to deal with when each of us had consumed about 150 calories for breakfast. However, we did eventually find a better trail and our way down to the creek crossing. We took off our packs here and filtered water admiring the gorgeous colors of sunrise. It was light now and Monday. No one else would be on the trail we assumed. Solitude. It was kind of nice to have the wilderness to ourselves and we endured sore muscles, dehydration, exhaustion and hunger. I definitely felt worse than Damien. But it is suffering that makes us better alpinist. And it is suffering that teaches us to endure all the trials of life.

But before I could trying appreciate all this pain and suffering and we had to continue down. We once again shouldered our packs. My steps were pretty quick up until .75 miles after the next bridge crossing. Then my feet felt like led. It seemed to take ages to get to the Trailhead parking lot. We wished that the road was open and that our car was parked there to greet us. But there was only snow patches. Instead we had to walk another 4 miles along the road back to our car on Icicle Creek. The journey seemed endless, but we made it.

We might not have summited Argonaut, but this goes down as one of the greatest adventures I’ve had in the alpine. Bad weather, harsh conditions, obscure route, technical climbing and technical decision making… and above all a test of physical and mental fortitude. This is what makes a true climber. VIEW VIDEO

Damien and I left Washington at about 9:00pm on Friday and drove through the night to Timberline Lodge at the base of Mt Hood. After spending a rather uncomfortable few hours trying to sleep folded up in the front seats of the car we began the approach. Our packs were extra heavy since we were lugging mountaineering boots up along with the rest of our gear. Our plan was to skin to Illumination Saddle. Then we would nap for the rest of the day in preparation for a nigh time start of the Leuthold Couloir. The freezing level was going to be 12,000ft once the sun came up. We wanted to be past the Hourglass and its infamous falling rim ice before the sun came up.

We followed the ski resort groomer trail a long the lower Chairlift to Silcox hut before Timberline opened it’s lifts to inbound skiers. We then continued up along the Palmer Chairlift which was not in service. It didn’t even have an chairs on the cables! Going seemed very slow by the time we neared the top. Lack of sleep and string sunshine to blame. And of course just as we reached the top of the lift at 8500ft a snow cat comes up and drops off 10 inbound skiers. Slightly disheartening after spending 4 hours trudging up hill to reach the same spot. But oh so worth the effort.

From the top of Palmer we began the mile long traverse left aiming toward Illumination Rock. The Illumination Saddle camp into view as we grew closer, but the traverse seemed endless with the heavy packs. Eventually we arrived at the saddle and set up camp out of the wind below the two saddle ridges. Towers of rim ice rock created magnificant castle-like ice sculptures around us. Rim had a way of making everything look like a fairytale. We were able to peak over the saddle and see the bottom of the couloir as well just before X rated Yocum Ridge. There were footprints to follow which woudl help in the dark and the crevasses did not look like they would present an issue.

Two other parties showed up at the ridge later that afternoon. One pair of backcountry skiers brought a front country Coleman tent that was mostly mesh with a tiny rain fly. They also had full sized beach towels, inbound ski cloths and some huge plastic lunchboxes. Nothing was ultra light or made for camping on a snowy volcano. The other group of three were skiers with proper backcountry gear. However, they were not climbing to the summit.

We slept hard, turning in at about 6:30pm and waking up once to see the sunset. At 2:15am we groggily slithered our of our sleeping bag and began the climb preparations. We began moving at 3:30am. Damien led us down the saddle and over the glacier to the base of the Leuthold Couloir. t would be fairly obviously even without the footprints. This took about 30 minutes. The Couloir is very wide in the beginning with snow from 50-60 degrees. One of two placed were a bit soft, but the bulk of the route was firm. There was some fine rim ice raining down on us, but nothing to cause alarm. Damien placed three pickets, but said afterward that he really only need one or two. I agree. The forth picket he placed at the beginning of the traverse toward the hourglass along with his ice axe as an anchor. He belayed me in from there and we swung leads.

The hourglass is infamous because it acts as a narrow funnel for all the rim ice falling off the rock towers the surround the chute. Sometimes golf ball or larger rim falls from the towards and zooms down the hourglass and with it being such a narrow space there is little room to take shelter. This is why we wanted to climb it in the dark when it was coldest. Even so, as I neared the entrance to the hourglass traversing left i could hear the rim rain loudly falling down the chute. I placed a picket near the wall just before entering the chute. I took a few tried for me to find a place to out it. beneath the snow was pure blue ice. It would have taken a screw. I found that staying on the far right side of the hourglass kept me our of the line of fire from most of the falling debris. A few pea sized pieces of ice hit me face and some bigger chunks hit my helmet, but nothing significant. Abut halfway through the hourglass I moved left as the protection on the right dwindled. Here here was a short 6-8 foot ramp where I actually had to swing my ice tools like i was climbing water ice. It was solid and fun though. The rest of the time we drove in our shafts or daggered the tools.

The Hourglass widened and present two chute options. I crossed over at took the far right chute. This part of the climb was like an endless hill that slowly sloped away so that you felt like no matter how high you climbed the ridge top never got closer. We were out of the line of fire from debris though and the sun was rising painting the sky with beautiful colors. The shadow of Mt Hood appeared on the valley far below us. Purely breathtaking.

Slowly the ridge-top began to stop growing further away. We expected there to be a lot of wind at the ridge crest when we topped it, but it wasn’t more than 10-15 mph. Gorgeous views abounded on either side, but ahead of us on the right the final 800ft of climbing reared up before us. After a brief break on the narrow ridge we climbed around the broad steep slope leading to the catwalk to a flat area where we could see the steep rocky cliffs falling away from the summit. We started up the final ascent here on 40-50 degree snow with a fair amount of rim ice coating it. It went quickly and we found ourselves on the final catwalk to the summit.

There was good trail stamped out on the knife edge walk to the summit. It was all i could do to walk and not run to the top. I was just so excited about my first volcano of the year! The summit was a bit crowded with folks who camp up the South Side, but it emptied out to no one soon after our arrival. Not a breathe of wind touch us and the perfectly clear day afforded us with views of Helens, Adams, Rainier, Three Sisters and Jefferson. I don’t think there was a single cloud in the sky. It’s hard to leave a summit with those conditions and we stayed for about an hour.

Folks are using Pearly Gates this year on the South Side for the final summit push. However, we opted to take Old Chute down instead. It is much wider than Pearly Gates and since so many folks were climbing up it we didn’t want to get involved in a bottleneck. There was a pretty good stairs stamped into the snow going down old chute though we did have to face inward for the bottom part due to the steepness. From there we basically followed the sidewalk that is the South Route to the base of Crater Rock. From Crater Rock we traversed below it aiming to Illumination Rock being careful to gradually descent to our small yellow dot of a tent and not go below it. The entire descent from the summit to camp took about 1.5 hours.

Damien happily walked around camp in shorts and down booties as we made water and chilled before making out final descent back to Timberline. Lots of folks passed through as we napped in the tent. None were climbers though. There were snowshoes left behind from another team we knew who started the climber about three hours behind us. We broke camp after two hours and enjoyed a leisurely ski back down to Timberline. Skiing among inbound recreationalists felt a bit strange with our giant packs. We weren’t half as agile as them on the slopes. It was still an wonderful ski down in good corn snow. First technical volcano of the year! VIEW VIDEO

 

This is another example of how what you plan and what occurs are rarely the same thing in the alpine. With another window of sunny clear days and moderate avalanches predicted we decided to do a three day tour near Washington Pass. We developed the idea from what is commonly called the Birthday Tour by AT skier only we made some adjustments for climbing and dealing with the hwy 20 closure. Our itinerary was to ski Hwy 20 5 miles from Silver Star Creek to The Blue Lake TH. From there we would ski as close to the base as possible to South Winter Early Spire and Camp. On Saturday we would ski from camp to the base of SEWS SW Couloir, leave our skis and climb to the summit. Then we would descend to camp, gather our gear and climb Blue Mountain before moving on to camp somewhere near Copper Peak. On Sunday we would ski to the summit of Copper and then down the drainage to the bottom of the hairpin Turn. Then out. This is exactly what did not happen this weekend.

Everything began as planned. We parked at the Hwy 2o road closure at Silver Star Creek and began skiing along the shoulder at about 7:30am. There was a sign warning of road clearing would a cannon setting off avalanches Mon-Thursday… but it was Friday so it was safe. In fact the road was clear as far as we could see. So clear that cyclist passed us! We skied first along the left side of the road before switching to the right after the guard rail skiing got to dicey and narrow for my tastes. By 10:00 the sun was baking us and we were hearing some huge booms echos across the mountains. Moderate avy danger? At 4 miles we were nowhere near the hairpin turn and looking at my GPS revealed the google maps had been very very wrong about it being 5 miles to Blue Lake TH. It appeared to be double that! We realized that it was about to me a very very long day. We thought that carrying out skis instead of breaking trail in the quickly softening snow might save some time. This we shouldered our skis and ambled down the blazing hwy in our ski boots.

This process of walking with 65ish lbs on my back in ski boots down pavement in the heat positively destroyed me. I cannot describe how much pain my shoulders and back were in after 4 miles. We stopped a few times and talked to some folks on their way down from near the Hairpin Turn. One gentleman confirmed that avalanches were going off like bombs off the south slopes. We knew some serious assessment would be in order before we climbed anything going forward.

We cut the switch back that is the hairpin turn and ended up on the upper part of the road were there was tons of avy debris from the cannons. We entered the road right after the thick of it though and were able to skin along a nice flat un-plowed Hwy 20 for the next two miles. It was untouched here by humans for a long time. The snowmobile track were faint and old.  Solitude. No one crazy enough to ski this far!

We saw a few avalanches explodes of the slopes on the mountain across the highway as we finally turned onto the Blue Lake Trail. We skied through the trees following some old ski tracks part of the way to the opening in the forest that is famous for huge avalanches. Sure enough it was a massive debris field… fairly new. We skied below that and then entered the open slopes below the Liberty Bell Group. The sun was low in the sky by now and it wasn’t as warm. But the snow was mushy from the days heat making things a little more challenging as we switch-backed up the steep slope toward South Winter Early Spire. I felt wrecked at this point, but kept note of the landscape around us. There was lots of avalanche debris and camp would have to be planned accordingly.

Luckily, we found a protected area about 1000ft below the base of the SW Couloir. We were able to also examine the route for the rest of our trip from the vantage point. There was a huge cornice on the ridge leading to Blue Lake Peak. We knew it would be there as the peak is known for the cornice, but the scale was indescribable. We scratched climbing that mountain after watching so many cornices collapse all day. The climb wasn’t under the cornice directly, but it was beside it and it looked like a slide woudl easily fan out in the chute. As far as Copper, we saw it from the Hairpin turn and thought we saw it from camp…. but the entire ridge-line and area directly below it to approach was corniced and/or rocky. We scratched that too. We would go out the way we came in.

After enjoying a spectacular color show at sunset we turned in only to be awakened my my alarm it what felt like 5 minutes. We started to ski up the final 1000ft to the base of SEWS at 6am, but the cold night temperatures has made the once mushy snow a solid icy mass. Ski crampons didn’t even work and we ended up adding our skis to our packs. The ascent was rough especially after our long Friday. My shoulders and back felt wretched, but we took turns kicking a staircase up the steep slope making slow progress. After what seemed like an eternity we arrived a  large rock near the base of the route that offered a flattish spot to set up. we roped up here and ditched our skis. We were skill in the shadows and we be for a while. But some of the south facing peaks int he distance had avalanche bombs already exploding down the walls. Damien began to lead and when the rope was extended i began to follow… it was then that a snow slab on the rocks above came into view. if the slab went it would take our skis with it on its way down. I called Damien to come back and we moved our skis to another spot directly at the base of the route by some trees. Again we started up.

Damien placed a picket and slung a tree before disappearing beneath the famous chockstone. He told me that the route seemed out and he could belay be up from the moat. Its hard to describe, but I arrived to the crest of the snow under the huge chockstone and poked my head over the top. the snow sloped down to a huge cave like moat under the chockstone. Damien stood 20 ft below me belaying. Normally there is a way to get around either the left or right side of the chockstone. However, this year had melt in such a fashion that accessing the sides of the stone was impossible without some risk taking and perhaps a pair of climbing shoes. I’m not even sure it would be possible then. The route, as far as we could tell, was out. As a side note, we double checked the beta back at home and some pictures. This is indeed appear to be the case.

I led the down-climb back to the skis. The sun was working its back up the slope softening the icy morning snow. We took out time putting our climbing gear away and switching back to skis. After a few short icy turns and a bumpy ride through avalanche debris we entered the snow and made some spectacular turns on perfect corn snow back to camp!

We promptly feel asleep until early afternoon. The snow was a wonderful consistency still and we considered this as we examined our next move. We could stay put and leave in the morning. The previous night had been so gorgeous under the towering rock. However, the descent through the trees would be much morning fun in corn snow. On the morning ice skiing would be horrendous. Thus we opted to pack up and move camp to Washington Pass.

We enjoyed some more perfect turns on the open slopes to the trees from camp. It was wonderful tree skiing conditions, plus the trees were just far enough apart to take the anxiety of crashing into on out of the equation. I also felt more confident for some reason this time around in general. Finally feeling better about my turns.  At the trailhead we put on our skins and skied the final mile to Washington Pass where we set up camp in the road.

Evening settled over the pass. Mountains surrounded us in every direction and  I thought of the summers when this road is bustling with traffic and tourists. But now the road was a stretch of white snow. There were no engine fumes to stain the fresh air or noisy people pointing at the peaks from the viewpoint. The only sounds were the grey jays begging in the trees and the soft wind touching the pines. Washington Pass and the Liberty Bell Group… we had visited these areas in solitude and seen them in way very few people have. We had seen them in solitude. Undisturbed and beautiful.

The stars were on display with full radiance that night and a lone owl serenaded us at midnight. In fact he get pretty excited with his calls. I think he found a mouse colony. We packed up and skied without skins down the hairpin turn, though we had to take our skis off a few times to get over the piles of avalanche debris. From the hairpin we followed the cat-track/ snowmobile trail on the shoulder bouncing on the hardened morning snow. It did eventually soften up and except for a short mile section were were able to coast heel free back to the car. That was amuch faster and more enjoyable trip than it had been on the way up! VIEW VIDEO